It Won’t Work If Congregations and Educators…



The Journal of Youth Engagement is an online forum of ideas and dialogue for those committed to engaging youth in vibrant Jewish life and living. Join the discussion and become a contributor.

By Ava Kurnow

  • only think about engaging post b’nai mitzvah students
  • don’t look at the whole picture of their community
  • don’t know what their short and long term goals are
  • don’t engage the stakeholders

Is there anything above that Jewish educators don’t already know?  Is there any congregation that doesn’t want to engage their members, including the youth?  Is the importance of building relationships within your community a new concept?

After you answer, “No”, think about what has changed and why we’re all looking for new ways to engage our youth. What will help you and why are we all writing and reading about what everyone else is doing?

The answer to the last question is what helps me the most.  If we don’t continually think about changing or adding ways to engage our youth we will be faced with sad new statistics and disappointments.  I have not only learned that the same approaches don’t work for each congregation, but that they don’t always work from year to year with our own youth. There isn’t a cookie-cutter answer, which is why reading about other’s journeys can be inspiring and also be the trigger for trying something new. This is an important part of my role at Beth Israel where we revisit our existing programs, structure, and methods each year to make sure we are doing what will work for our community.

When I arrived at Beth Israel of San Diego four years ago, a congregational task force on youth engagement was wrapping up their short-term assignment to address some key concerns:  dissatisfaction with post b’nai mitzvah retention, lack of communication, lack of connectedness of youth and their families and the lack of organized events to bring our youth together.  One of the first action items of the plan was to hire the first full time Director of Youth Services, with the teens participating in the selection process. It was a tremendous help that our leadership had recognized the need for change and made engaging and retaining our youth one of their priorities, but we had much work to do beyond the hiring phase.

To be fair, it wasn’t all doom and gloom. Our cantor had been engaging a large group of students for years through our youth choirs and band. There are almost as many teenagers in our madrichim program (many overlap) founded and supervised by our educator emerita.

That aside, we’ve still come a long way since the new youth director position was filled and then refilled and reinvented. We have utilized multi-tiered strategies that included:

  • A listening campaign
  • Weekly education team meetings that brought the associate rabbi, present religious school director and director emerita, early childhood director and youth director together to plan, create, collaborate and dream.
  • Including other stakeholders in the visioning process. We invited board liaisons, a very small number of senior staff members and parents at all stages of life with a children of different ages.

With two eager and committed parents as co-chairs, the group of stakeholders named themselves the “Think Tank”. The Think Tank began by sharing their own stories with each other, and then sought to hear stories from a larger community of stakeholders.  After much planning and a tremendous amount of hype, we hosted a town hall meeting” so that the community could share their input. At this meeting, we polled congregants to get answers to some of our questions, and then we listened to what our congregants had to say. In small groups, the “Think Tank” members asked congregants to share their feedback about a list of things that were new in religious school and a road map of our education program. The groups then opened up for discussions and feedback. The leaders reported the responses, suggestions, etc. at the next Think Tank meeting and with the congregation in a bulletin article.

At the same time all of this was happening, we were also meeting with our teens. We asked, “What do you like about being at Beth Israel?” and sought their input about why their classmates didn’t stay. After listening, we utilized their feedback to revamp the high school program (8th - 12th grades) with new food choices for dinner, new core curriculum, new electives and new teachers and staff that love our teens and know how to relate to them. The following year, the Think Tank set up a booth at the Purim Carnival, where congregants could have personal conversations and share their input about our ongoing process.

Since the launch of the Think Tank, there have been other changes in the youth-related departments inspired by our reorganization and listening campaign. Our efforts range from those aimed at the youngest children with parent-planned gatherings that bring families together, include curriculum changes that are relevant and geared to forming relationships, and the inclusion of all synagogue staff and leadership in the continuing process.

Four years into this new strategy, the Think Tank has continued to act as ambassadors. They realized early in the process that one of their guiding principles is that families need to be engaged and feel like they belong, in addition to the youth themselves. This guiding principle is what makes everyone want to come back and stay connected. The group is now “thinking” about what is next.

“It is not incumbent upon you to complete the task, but you are not free to desist from it either.”

- Rabbi Tarfon (Pirke Avot: 2:21)

We are still gathering and dreaming…

Ava Kurnow joined the Lee and Frank Goldberg Family Religious School staff as Director of Judaic Studies and assumed the role of Director of Religious School Education in 2011. Before joining Beth Israel, Ava worked as director of lifelong learning at Congregation Albert in Albuquerque, New Mexico. For 23 years before that, she was director of education at Temple Chai in Phoenix, Arizona. While in Phoenix she also served on the city’s Educator’s Forum and taught workshops for new Jewish principals and other colleagues at conferences and at Union for Reform Judaism (URJ) biennials.

Journal of Youth Engagement

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